December 18, 2022
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Illustration by Jason Hoffman
RA can change how we feel about our bodies. In my case, it made me reassess how I viewed my body in ways that I never thought were possible.
I was in my middle school’s sick room — a tiny broom closet of a room — when I heard my father say, “well, it’s good that she’s watching her figure.” This was his answer to my principal’s concern that I was skipping breakfast and lunch to stay thin.
I was only 11 years old but had become painfully aware of my body. I thought that I had to remain a certain size for my body and myself to be considered acceptable.
I had started missing breakfast every morning before school. My body punished me by the time 8 a.m. rolled around. I developed fainting spells, which continued into my late teens. But somehow, I was convinced fainting was a small price to pay to have the perfect body.
It wasn’t until my early 20s, and my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) diagnosis that things would start to change.
I grew up in the era of weight-watching magazines. Often, I would find myself comparing my weight to Western celebrities thousands of miles away. I remember looking at Kim Kardashian, a woman more than 10 years my older, and wondering how she weighed the same as me.
Fat was wrong according to those magazines — my body was wrong.
No adult in my life spoke about my body negatively, but I saw how they spoke about their own bodies. I distinctly remember my mother complaining about the size of her thighs, and automatically, my eyes were drawn to my own.
She thought her body was a problem. And since I look like her, I assumed she thought the same of my body.
Soon, I started to incorporate more unhealthy weight loss habits into my life.
Skipping meals was no longer going to be enough, so I moved to exercise. I started working out every morning of the week.
I had no idea that I was suffering from poor body image issues. In my constructed worldview, I was doing what everyone else was doing.
One afternoon in High School, a classmate’s mother pulled me aside to check in with me. I was 15 years old and underweight. She told me that my weight was worrying. Later that day, I looked at myself in the mirror, and for the first time in my teenage life, I saw myself with clear eyes. I saw jutting bones, sunken eyes, and a weariness that was far past my age.
I was punishing my body. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but I also knew things weren’t going to change.
When I got my RA diagnosis at age 20, I was still loathing my body. A small part of me was even thinking, “your body is disgusting. That’s why you are sick.” I was completely out of touch with my body. I hated it. I wanted to change it.
Studies have shown that RA can change how we feel and think about our bodies, often causing a negative body image. For example, one study showed that those living with RA had worse body image, which included lower self-esteem, function, and quality of life.
But RA had a different plan for me.
I was still working out almost every day of the week. But this amount of exercise seemed to exacerbate my RA pain. It became intolerable. So, very reluctantly, I started to cut back on exercise. I was incredibly anxious about gaining weight and losing control over my body.
Soon after I cut back on exercise, I started to have fewer flare-ups. My pain became more manageable. Gaining weight was still a concern, but it became less of an issue as I started to feel more in control of my RA.
At some point in my 20s, I started wellness programs for my RA. These programs needed me to be present in my body for them to work. They taught me how to live in the moment and how to view my body as a precious entity that needed consistent love, care, and breaks.
I do not know exactly when I started treasuring my body for its resilience and beauty, but I do know that RA forced me to truly view my body positively.
Now, as a 30-year-old woman, I exercise three times a week, never skip meals, and indulge in my favorite treats with no guilt. RA made me change my attitude toward my body and made me confront the bad habits I had developed.
Most times, when I talk about my RA diagnosis, I usually say it is one of the worst things that has happened to me. But in this instance, RA was a wake-up call for how I viewed my body.
My body is a miracle. It keeps me alive, it bounces back from flare-ups, and it teaches me to cherish all living things.
I have lived with RA for 10 years, and in these years, I have learned that my body is my best thing. The best things need love and care.
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